The Lonely Quest to Enforce War Powers

As he has many times before, Congressman Walter Jones, Republican from North Carolina stood alone on Friday. Well, not entirely. But the sparsely attended press conference he hosted to promote his resolution defending the power of Congress — and only Congress — to declare war, was yet another testament of Jones’ long and lonely march against war and runaway executive authority.

“My concern has always been, since we were misled with the intelligence to go into Iraq, and all the number of young men and women who have been killed, and loss of limbs, that Congress needs to come back to what the Constitution says, and that is, if you’re going to commit our young men and women to fight and die, you must declare war,” he said, relating back to when he first turned against the Iraq war during the Bush Administration.

Now, there are exceptions, he said, “like 9/11, the President must have the authority to make immediate decisions,” however, “hopefully he or she would consult with Congress at that point.”

House Concurrent Resolution 107 would ensure that Congress has the “exclusive power” to declare war. A president who acts in violation by going to war without consent of Congress would be committing an impeachable offense, according to the bill’s language. In pushing this bill, said Jones, “I would do my small part to make sure any young boy or girl would have not have put themselves in harm’s way” because of “any backroom decision a to commit this country to war.”

With that, Jones left the podium, and sat for a while listening to his compatriots in the cause speak until he was forced to race to the floor for a vote. That the House was voting Friday morning was the excuse given for why there weren’t more members or staff or media in the room at the Rayburn House Office building that morning.

But that was clearly just a part of it. It could be that making any violation of Congress’ authority to declare war an impeachable offense might seem heavy-handed and frankly unserious to others, since the majority of Congress is obviously not yet convinced it has to fight for this exclusive authority under the constitution — or even wants to.

But the plain truth is, there’s just not a lot of interest in a debate today over the War Powers Clause and its use — or abuse — period.

Jones’ admirable attempt to rein in the president’s use of unilateral authority for war-making has garnered only 10 co-sponsors, of which three are Democrats, and many of the same stalwart faces, like Rep. Ron Paul, R-TX., and Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-OH., both of whom are leaving Congress at the end of the year. It would seem neither party wants to put restrictions on the White House when every four years it could be the one sitting in the cat-bird seat.

The War Powers Clause — Article 1, Section 8, Clause 11 of the U.S. Constitution — clearly states, “[The Congress shall have Power To] declare War, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water …” However, the constitution does not define the form of declaration that is required nor whether this power supersedes that of the president, who others argue has the power to authorize war on his own in other parts of the constitution [Article II, Section 2].

After Vietnam, Congress passed the War Powers Resolution in 1973 to reinforce Congress’ role in authorizing war, but critics complain that nearly every president has ignored it since, the most recent being President Obama in Libya.

“The chances of Congress addressing the war powers in the relative near future are virtually nil,” said Inter Press Service journalist Gareth Porter, who was in the audience Friday.  “We have seen the oversight role of Congress and U.S. wars reduced to an all-time low.  In the absence of a citizen movement to raise the profile of the issue very dramatically, it is clear that nothing is going to happen.” 

Jones’ resolution was introduced in March and has sat in the Judiciary Committee ever since. It came on the heels of two similar bills by Kucinich, Jones and the usual suspects trying to push a vote against the Afghanistan War under the War Powers Act in 2010 and 2011. Some critics, including Ron Paul, for instance, continue to believe Afghanistan and Iraq were illegal because they were undeclared by Congress.

Both bills failed miserably. Since then, President Obama intervened and led the NATO air war against Moammar Gadhafi in Libya in the spring of 2011. Jones and Kucinich filed a lawsuit against what they said was another undeclared war, but that obviously went nowhere, too.

Despite the lackluster support of his March resolution, Jones felt the heightened tensions in the Middle East, the ongoing push for military action against Iran, and the looming question over Syria, made the debate over who decides to go to war more urgent than ever. Thus, Friday’s press conference, which was supposed to, if anything, remind folks his bill is still on the table.

“I think this, even though it’s not massively attended, like many events in our past that were very important, is an important event,” said retired Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell during the Iraq War, looking around the room, before launching into a passionate and cogent attack on U.S. foreign and military policy. This is what his fellow panelists — Lt. Col Anthony Shaffer and constitutional law expert Bruce Fein — also seemed to be thinking: if there’s a free microphone and a few folks in the crowd, including a couple of journalists, why not take the rare opportunity to get it all out, beyond just the constitutional interpretation of the War Powers clause?

“We’ve come to a point, in this empire’s history, that I spend most of my time that’s free, studying so I can relate it to my students,” said Wilkerson, an adjunct professor at William & Mary College in Virginia. “Fateful decision-making we define as decisions made to send young men and young women to die for state purposes. And also, something we often forget, particularly in this country, to kill other people for state purposes.”

“The suicide rate in the Army and Marine Corps is off the charts,” Wilkerson continued. “One of the reasons is because we lowered the requirements so far, that we took 100,000 troops, who failed psychological examinations, multiple times, before we put them in the Army or the Marine Corps … deployments, excessive deployments, frequent deployments, a really nasty battlefield, and other things have contributed to that,” added.

“And it’s all happened because of what Congressman Jones is pointing at — the facility with which the President of the United States can take this apathetic nation to war, and kill people.”

Fein has been a vociferous critic of the metastasizing executive authority that has unleashed unprecedented intelligence and police powers on the American people at home, not to mention new detention laws for Americans and foreigners alike, plus secret rendition, torture and killing abroad. He has long argued against what he calls the “illegal wars,” and constantly points to the constitution as his guide.

He weighed in: “(The) Constitutional Convention’ said, ‘we do not want any single person, or any group of people, to enable us to enter war.’”

“That ranged from the most liberal to the most conservative, like Alexander Hamilton, who was in favor of a muscular Presidency. They all agreed that warfare was irreconcilable with freedom,” he exclaimed, his usual Gatling gun oratory searching for a target.

His sights zeroed in on the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), the passage of which last year laid out provisions for the military detention of Americans on U.S. soil in counter-terrorism operations.

“(It) empowers the President to detain any American citizen, on his say-so alone, if you provide substantial assistance to an associated force of a terrorist group,” noting that the government hasn’t even tried to define “substantial assistance” or associated force” when pressed.

“That shows you the breadth of the authority that’s authorized by the NDAA — that’s a migration from the war powers usurpation,” Fein insisted, offering other examples of extreme overreach, like spying on Americans without warrant, and the unilateral decision to target individuals — even Americans — with Predator drone strikes.

“And where is the Congress — the invertebrate branch — other than Congressman Jones?” he zinged. “And what’s so stunning, is that you don’t need to do archeological expeditions to find the evidence of the impeachable offense: It’s in the front pages — it’s openly confessed.”

He called the death of the U.S. Ambassador to Libya two weeks ago a prime example of “blowback,” caused by the hasty, unilateral decision to go to war.

“The reason why he was killed, was precisely because of our intervention. We set the stage, for a country that now is semi-anarchic, like Somalia,” Fein charged.

“We go in and destroy everything, and then we can’t understand, why by spontaneous combustion a new country didn’t emerge that loves the United States, and you find George Washingtons and James Madisons everywhere. I mean, that’s really … hallucinogenic is what it is.”

Shaffer is a retired Army intelligence officer who wrote Operation Dark Heart, of which tens of thousands of first edition copies of were gobbled up by the Pentagon and destroyed because his story disparages the intelligence operations before 9/11 and the way the U.S. was handling the Afghan war (the Pentagon insists it was because Shaffer did not go through proper clearance channels, and had blabbed classified information).

On Friday, he emphasized how we are “creating the next generation of adversaries” with a military policy that allows for the extrajudicial assassination of our enemies through secret drone strikes “without an understanding of the second and third order of facts.”

That’s why he is supporting Jones’ resolution, he said. “Because we don’t have people who understand that the blind use of military force can have secondary effects, detrimental to the very objective you’re trying to achieve. That’s what this is ultimately, in my judgment, all about — the actual rethinking of why we do, what we do, when we do it, with military force.”

He pointed to Afghanistan, from which the rest of the so-called surge troops were reportedly brought home last week. Still, nearly 70,000 U.S. troops remain there. “Why didn’t we have debate on this?” he quipped. “And frankly, why don’t we actually work to try to understand the root causes of the conflicts, if we’re going to do anything at all?

Right now the only debate on Capitol Hill seems to be going on in near empty hearing rooms like this one, with only one side doing all the talking. Eloquent as these men might be, debating Congress’s war powers does not appear to be a high priority, nor is any broader contemplation of U.S. foreign policy in the presidential campaign.

They spoke for sometime after that, answering questions about the battle drums for war in Iran and Syria and how “our foreign policy today is our military policy,” said Wilkerson, who dramatically compared the U.S. to the greedy and hubristic military empires of world history. What Jones and Wilkerson and the others were trying to do, he said, was more than just putting red lines on presidential power, but trying to save the country (or what he refers to as empire) from itself.

“What I am saying is,” Wilkerson explained, “we need to last a little longer than next week because we are a potent force for good in the world, because our values, when exemplified and adhered to, can really impact change in the world—but not with our military.”

“That’s why it is important to stay around for a while.”

Certainly his words drew hearty applause from the few people in the room — but who else, really, is listening?

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Author: Kelley B. Vlahos

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer, is a longtime political reporter for and a contributing editor at The American Conservative. She is also a Washington correspondent for Homeland Security Today magazine. Her Twitter account is @KelleyBVlahos.